Cinema: Say Good Night to the Bad Guy

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Directed by Brian De Palma; Screenplay by Oliver Stone

So the feds in Miami ask this Tony Montana where he picked up his pretty good English, and Tony, a Cuban washed ashore in the 1980 wave of 125,000 refugees, smiles up at them roguishly and says, “My father ta’e me to the movies. I watch the guys like Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, I learn how to spe’ from those guys. I li’e those guys.” To each his own American dream. Tony (Al Pacino) and his pal Manolo (Steven Bauer) have different takes on that vision. Manny has a modest, ranch-house version: “I’d like my own blue jeans with my name written on chicks’ asses.” Not Tony; he thinks big. “I want what’s comin’ to me—the world an’ everything in it.” With equal measures of charm and cojones, Tony will get to live out his Hollywood gangster scenario of underworld power, finally earning a couple hundred million a year as the coke czar of South Florida. And then, like any penny-ante public enemy who ever lurched across the big screen, Tony Montana will get what’s coming to him. Boom!

Another artist of atrocity, Brian De Palma, took notes from the Hollywood siren too. Much of his cinematic vocabulary comes straight from the old masters: the razor-slick strategies of a Hitchcock murder sequence, the sass and spitfire of a Howard Hawks comedy, the swooping voyeurism of a Vincente Minnelli crane shot. Here De Palma applies his film-school expertise to Oliver Stone’s script to fashion a big, bloody, entertaining tragicomedy that functions both as tabloid journalism (The Rise and Fall of a Drug King) and as cautionary fable. Tony Montana may be exterminated by the hired guns of a rival narcotics boss, but he is effectively dead long before that, fallen not into the gutter but facedown in a candy mountain of cocaine. He had broken the crime lord’s first commandment—Don’t get high on your own supply—and become a zombie before the first machine-gun blast ever hit him.

On the rise, on top, or tobogganing toward his destiny, Tony is always the same: a ruthless, fearless, utterly amoral slug. Insert him in the chamber of a .45 and he will blast off into your enemies. Cross him and cross yourself; he will perform your last rites just for fun. His swaggering sense of invulnerability first earns him a role as gorilla soldier in the army of Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia), a car and drug dealer. In the class structure of Sunbelt crime, Frank is the middle-class middle man, tangling fatally with both the coke aristocracy of Bolivia and Tony, his proletarian successor. He has two things Tony wants: power and a bored blond mistress (Michelle Pfeiffer), with a Kew-pie-doll mouth soured into a who-cares sneer and the bad habit of powdering her nose from the inside. Tony also develops a paternal letch for his teen-age sister (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). The combination of greed and blood lust is too much for this bad guy to handle; if one doesn’t get him, the other will. And in the end, both do.

Scarface takes its title, plot and comic-grotesque tone from a 1932 film directed by Howard Hawks, written by Ben Hecht and John Lee Mahin and starring Paul Muni as a lightly fictionalized, heavily romanticized Al Capone. That Scarface ran 90 minutes; this one ambles along at nearly twice the length. The first film has a screwball-comedy briskness that made Tony an outsized monster, a festering lesion on the body politic, without stopping more than once or twice to spell out social message. The new Scarface is at bottom a bitter comedy about the perils of drug abuse, and De Palma directs his actors to play at the pitch of gross grandiosity but at the pace of a chamber drama.

Perhaps De Palma and Stone had aspirations of Godfatherhood: an operatic overview of the nation’s immigrant black princes, a meticulous dissection of the relationship between crime and Big Business, a celebration of the American power ethic, a warning against corporal or corporate abuse. But Scarface lacks the generational sweep and moral ambiguity of the Corleone saga. At the end, Tony is as he was at the beginning: his development and degeneration are horrifyingly predictable; his death evokes not fear or pity, but numb relief.

If Scarface falls short of justifying its running time or its ambitions, it is still exhilarating for its vigor and craftsmanship. Visual Consultant Ferdinando Scarfiotti has designed the film in a kitsch-glitz riot of evocative colors: gold (for money), white (cocaine), red (blood) and black (death). As Tony vaults up the ladder of excess, his bad taste escalates as well. He trades in his yellow Caddy with the tiger-skin upholstery for a $43,000 gray Porsche. His favorite hangout, the Babylon nightclub, is a gaudy Erechtheum stocked with black Naugahyde banquettes, pink and blue ribbons of neon, black-marble toilet stalls, and mirrors, mirrors everywhere. The mansion of Tony’s dreams boasts an Olympic-size bathtub; in the foyer, statues of the Three Graces support a huge gold globe bearing the legend THE WORLD is YOURS.

Through this underworld Pacino stalks like a panther. He carries memories of earlier performances (the bantam bombast of Dog Day Afternoon, the nervous belt tugging from American Buffalo, the crook’d arm from his Broadway Richard III), but creates his freshest character in years. There is a poetry to his psychosis that makes Tony a figure of rank awe, and the rhythm of that poetry is Pacino’s. Most of the large cast is fine; Michelle Pfeiffer is better. The cool, druggy Wasp woman who does not fit into Tony’s world, Pfeiffer’s Elvira is funny and pathetic, a street angel ready at any whim to float away on another cocaine cloud.

Only Elvira escapes Scarface alive; every other character goes down in a hailstorm of bullets. It is this ferocity, plus the complementary fusillade of four-letter language (the commonest four-letter obscenity is, by conservative count, uttered 181 times), that originally won Scarface the poisonous X rating from the Motion Picture Association’s ratings board. It was a bum rap and was overruled on appeal. Scarface is no fouler of mouth than Richard Pryor on a good day, and less graphic than the last three dozen splatter movies. It is a serious, often hilarious peek under the rock where nightmares strut in $800 suits and Armageddon lies around the next twist of treason. The only X this movie deserves is the one in explosive.

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